Who are nuclear weapons scientists? | Hugh Gusterson | TEDxFoggyBottom

Translator: Vytautė Marija Petručionytė
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney I’m an anthropologist. When you think of anthropologists,
you think of people who study cannibals in New Guinea, people in grass skirts in Samoa. I’ve spent my career
as an anthropologist studying American nuclear weapons scientists. I wanted to know why someone,
when they graduate from university would want to give the rest of their life to designing weapons
that could kill millions of people; what it feels like to do that for living; what effect it has on people
and how they talk about it. So, towards the end of the Cold War I started talking to weapons scientists
of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, about an hour east of San Francisco. I’ve also spent time
at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, where the weapons scientists
designed the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This resulted in a couple of books: Nuclear Rites and People of the Bomb, and I’m just finishing up a third book
on the nuclear weapons labs this summer. Anthropologists like to hang out
with the people they study, they like to follow them around, listen to what they say,
watch what they do, write it all down in notebooks. I obviously could not do that
with the weapons scientists. They work behind that barbed wire fence. They have top secret clearances,
which I didn’t have. Apart from being allowed to go
to the cafeteria at the lab, I wasn’t allowed inside the lab. So, how do you study people
when you can’t follow them to work? Well, I did a lot of interviews. When I arrived in Livermore,
I knew one person. He was the son
of a nuclear weapons scientist, and he introduced me to his father. His father was kind enough
to invite me to his house and spent three hours
telling me his life story. At the end of that evening he said, “Tomorrow I’ll call you
with the names and numbers of five colleagues,” which he did. They referred me to other people. Soon I had dozens of nuclear
weapons scientists, willing to talk to me. I also moved into housing, that I shared with people
who worked at the lab. Over a couple years
I lived in three different homes, with different people,
who worked at the lab. I went to church every Sunday if I could, met lots of weapons scientists at church
and tried to get to know the ministers, who had to minister the congregations
full of nuclear weapons scientists. Spent a lot of time in bars and cafes,
ran up quite a bar tab. And I even joined a baseball team
and a basketball team in the lab sports league to get to know people that way. So, what kind of people
are nuclear weapons scientists? And before I answer this, I want to pause a moment
and invite you to imagine what you think the answer will be. What are your stereotypes? What kind of people do you think they are? So, I assumed that they would be
right-winged republicans. And I was wrong. More of them were liberal
than conservative, some of them had protested
the Vietnam War as students, they’d been active
in the civil rights movement, they gave to environmental causes, they supported women’s rights. Now, some were conservatives as well, but most of the ones I got to know
actually were liberals. Vastly more of them were men than women, and that represents the demographics
of American physics. About 70% of the scientists
I talked to were active Christians, in mainline denominations: Catholics,
Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians. There are quite a number of Jews
as well, a lot of Mormons, – there’s a big Mormon
church in Livermore – and a couple of Buddhists. So, they weren’t political ideologues, they didn’t do this because they felt
passionately hostile to Communism. They didn’t do it because they were
ultra-nationalist Americans. They did it out of of pragmatic sense, If you asked them, “Do nuclear
weapons keep the peace?” They thought that they were making devices that just pragmatically forced
countries to behave themselves, and not attack each other. So, when I asked them,
when they came grad school, why they decided to accept a job
at a nuclear weapons lab, they didn’t talk much
about the politics of it. They didn’t say, “Well, I really wanted
to design nuclear weapons.” They talked about
the attractive ambiance of the lab, this laid-back atmosphere. You didn’t have to wear a tie to work. There’s this strong emphasis on team work. The lab had cutting-edge technology,
super computers, the latest lasers, and so on. I interviewed a professor at a university, who trained a number of people
who went on to work at the weapons labs. And he commented
that it was a kind of paradox that it was his kinder, gentler students who went on to become weapons scientist. He told me that the cut-throat,
aggressive, ultra-competitive students went on to become professors. (Laughter) And what did they say
about the ethics of their work? In every life history,
as I was gathering it, I would ask them, “So, do you think
about the ethics of your work when you’re offered the job? Did you work through that?” And over and over again,
I heard the same thing, “You know, you’re lucky
that you’re talking to me, because I think
about the ethics of my work, but my colleagues
don’t think about it like I do.” So I soon realized that they were thinking
about the ethics of the work, but the lab didn’t create a space where they could talk
about that collectively. As I hinted, they believe that nuclear weapons
keep the peace and save lives. I made a point of asking
weapons scientist, “Do you think weapons
you work on will ever be used?” And they said, “No, of course not.” I asked if they had nightmares
about nuclear war. “No, of course not.” Some of them told me that it’s actually
more ethical to work on nuclear weapons than on conventional weapons. They told me, if you work on
land mines or napalm, you’re creating weapons
that will maim and kill people. If you work on nuclear weapons, you’re working on weapons
that are designed to deter war. So, one of them told me
he felt proud, he felt – he’d save millions of lives
by preventing World War III. They all, for the most part,
also felt very strongly that Western countries are stable,
mature, and rational enough that they can be trusted
with nuclear weapons, but that non-Western countries
like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, don’t have that same level
of stability, maturity, and rationality, and that it wouldn’t be ethical to work
on nuclear weapons in those countries, and those countries can’t be trusted
with the weapons. The scientists, if you ask
what their main product was, they produced nuclear tests. The US did over 1,000 nuclear tests
over about 50 years during the Cold War. The last American
nuclear test was in 1992. President George H. W. Bush
signed legislation ending nuclear testing in 1992. And then president Bill Clinton, in 1996,
signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. So, since 1996, there was
a flurry of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and there’s been a handful
of tests by North Korea. But apart from that,
nuclear testing is over. Britain, France, America, Russia, China
have not tested nuclear weapons since they signed this treaty in 1996. So, you might ask, what do
nuclear weapons scientists do then, if we’re not testing
nuclear weapons anymore? And also, given that the US maintains
a stockpile of 7,000 nuclear weapons – that’s right, US still has
7,000 nuclear weapons – how are they maintained if you can’t test
them to make sure that they work? This shows the budget for nuclear weapons
research and development in the US. And the reason I’m putting this up here,
what’s striking about this, is that we actually spend more on nuclear weapons
research and development now since the Cold War ended,
since nuclear testing ended, than we spent during the Cold War. That red line in the middle is
in constant dollars the average amount we spent on nuclear weapons research
and development during the Cold War. And you see we’re spending a lot more now, even though we’re not designing
and testing new nuclear weapons. So, what is that money being spent on? Well it’s being spent on
very expensive simulation technologies, and on salaries for people at the labs. The labs have roughly as many
nuclear weapons scientists now as they had during the Cold War, and they’re training a new generation
of weapons scientists as I speak. So, they’re using expensive
simulation technologies to simulate components of a nuclear test. This is an image of part of the dual axis
radiographic hydro-test facility at Los Alamos, a big mouthful, I know. It’s an expensive super X-ray machine, that will tell you
whether the plutonium core that sits inside a nuclear weapon will compress exactly symmetrically
when you need it to and it does that without
actually using plutonium, without creating a nuclear explosion. The national ignition facility
at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, being toured here
by Arnold Schwarzenegger, cost 4.5 billion dollars to built. It’s the most powerful laser on Earth. 192 separate laser beams converge
exactly at the same time, I mean, within nano-seconds, on a pellet of deuterium and tritium. And when they do that, it creates
temperatures and pressures greater than those inside the sun. And they do that a few hundred yards away
from a suburban housing development. It’s the test, the kinds of physical regimes
you find in hydrogen bombs. Lab scientists integrate the results
of experiments for machines like these, in enormous supercomputers, some of the most expensive and powerful
supercomputers in the world. Those supercomputers spit out numbers that mean something
to the weapons scientists, but they can also create three-dimentional images
of a nuclear explosion. And this is a facility at Los Alamos
called “The Cave.” And you see here
nuclear weapons scientists, actually walking inside a simulation
of a nuclear explosion, looking at particular facets
of the explosion. I want to leave you with three thoughts. The first is this: Nuclear weapons have become
much more abstract than they used to be. At first, they were tested above ground. I interviewed all the weapons scientists who told me vividly
about the feeling of the heat, of the flash of the explosion
on their bodies, the blast wave. One of them told me
he peed in his pants in terror when he saw his first nuclear test. It was so terrifying
as a bodily experience. Then, the test went underground
and became more abstract. Now, they’re not
even tested underground. They look pretty
and psychedelic like this. There’s a real danger in that abstraction. There’s a danger that we can forget the terrible damage
which these weapons are capable of. The second thought
I want to leave you with is this: do we believe that the world can go on indefinitely half nuclear and half nuclear-free? The five official nuclear powers have no plans to abolish
their nuclear weapons. Do we think that Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia,
and so on won’t follow in their footsteps? And then, finally, there’s this thought: this is a nuclear missile in the US
with several warheads on it. If it’s ever used,
when it flies out of there, within half an hour, somewhere
on the other side of the world, tens of thousands, if not hundreds
of thousands of people will be dead. There are silos like this
all over the United States, And in Russia; There are weapons like this on submarines,
patrolling the oceans at all times. It is the faith of our nuclear
weapons scientists that this situation
can go on indefinitely, that human beings are rational enough,
that they can be trusted never ever to let
these missiles out of the silo. So, look at that missile and ask yourself: do you share their faith that this missile
will always stay in its silo? Thank you.